I've begun reading 'The Success of Open Source' as I try to get my head around the idea, or the fact, that open source databases have leapfrogged enterprise engineered databases in many important ways. It's a disorienting feeling I have, so I need to reconcile it with reality. That's the thrust, but I think there are important implications as well.
If there is one thing I've always liked about my industry and also hated it is the way in which programmers have been organized to work and create wealth has managed to be casual. I thought about this today while looking for a bathroom that was not being serviced in the spanking new building where I'm working. And so I'm curious to know some of the underlying principles, if there are any.
You see the building I'm currently working in has been architected for collaboration. Nobody owns a desk, anybody can use any 'cube' which is more like an open plan workstation, to dock their laptop and do whatever it is they do. There are lockers disbursed through the building so that if you have stuff, that you can park it securely as your itinerant work takes you wherever in the building. There are small private rooms with phones and glass doors so that you can do a conference call. Some are as small as a large telephone booth, others can seat three or four folks.
Now the unwritten rule of this architecture has to be written, and you will find spontaneously printed notes all around the joint reminding employees that camping is not allowed. In other words, it defies the spirit of the collaborative environment to claim one of these small private rooms for yourself. But enough people have camped for the signs to become necessary. I even noticed one printed in large red letters in the elavator this morning.
This environment comes complete, as one would expect in Silicon Valley, with an area with beanbag chairs a ping pong table and subsidized soft drink machines. It's hardly what one would think of as panoptic. Yet despite its thoroughly contemporary style you'll still find a catering truck pulling up to to the front of the building every day at lunch. I've been to a large number of companies in my time, and I would argue that this particular campus is on the more advanced edge of the IT high tech sort. In the building I visited yesterday, there are no corner offices. In the corners are conference rooms. Everything about the place says, young, smart, tansformative & green. Yes green. Outside the front door of my building is a solar powered trash can. Don't ask.
Is propriety at risk here? Yes, a little bit, but I cannot tell to what extent. My immediate reaction to the no camping sign is split. One could easily be chagrined that old habits die hard. On the other hand re-engineering is not necessarily quality improvement. To work in a building that encourages collaboration and play is a hallmark of the new style of business organization you find in Silicon Valley. But is hierarchical organization necessarily bad? Is the desire to be territorial wrong? Is it necessarily a good thing to have a rumpus room in a corporation? I think it all depends at root on one's understanding of the ways and means people are organized around property and how that is perceived by workers and their management.
For example. If I understand the open source movement correctly, it produces a high quality product because the inner workings of products are subject to arbitrary and massive scrutiny. In architecting a building where people work around that same principle, you don't own your office because your work should be subject to arbitrary and massive scrutiny. Camping implies propriety, of keeping to yourself, of privacy.
The downside of proprietary engineering development that I am intimately familiar with originated with my experience at Xerox. Xerox fumbled the future because it slavishly attended to its customers - customers who were not future-oriented. Likewise when you make your money designing to spec in a bespoke manner for a limited set of customers you are likely to satisfy them very well but you will be inefficient for the masses. Open source takes advantage of the masses and a new arrangement between customer and provider. So I am aware how propriety inspires loyalty and trust and how loyalty and trust can be the enemies of innovation.
There are great implications about this new kind of property which is inherent in the open source movement, but the manifestations of the broader social implications are just beginning to appear.